Any time James Chasse is in the news, the same reader calls me with the same question:
Why won’t this story go away? It’s been four years. He was nobody. Why do you think anyone still cares?
This momentous occasion, city leaders finally doing the wise thing and settling his family’s federal lawsuit, feels like a good time to explain why Chasse matters. In short: This was a one in a million death — or maybe one in $1.6 million — that revealed everything wrong with our great, liberal, oh-so livable city.
Consider the narrative. A mentally ill man living just this side of homelessness stumbled down a sidewalk in the Pearl District, that nationally renowned symbol of urban renewal. Police were too far removed from community policing to recognize him as the neighborhood schizophrenic, not a junkie. Thinking he had just urinated in the street, they ordered him to stop. He ran. They chased. With well-heeled diners looking on from Bluehour, one of Portland’s toniest restaurants, the officers tackled, Tasered and kicked Chasse. He died in the back of a police car from injuries that included 26 breaks to 16 ribs and a punctured lung.
Then, adding to the indignity, the internal investigation into why he died took three years as a series of elected officials played deaf, blind and utterly disinterested. The delays angered mental-health advocates and alienated police officers.
It’s amazing how one random encounter exposed so many holes: Multnomah County’s social service system has been decimated by budget cuts and increased need. The gap between rich and poor in Portland grows daily– and let’s not even talk about where that leaves the middle class, or at least those who haven’t fled to the suburbs. The police bureau lacks true civilian oversight or accountability. Our commission system of government allows everyone in City Hall, from the mayor on down, to ignore basic government services.
Let’s talk about Mayor Sam Adams for a moment. He’s furious that Police Chief Rosie Sizer staged a news conference Monday to criticize his proposed budget, so angry that he berated a colleague about her reporting. Adams apparently forgot that he’s the one who abdicated responsibility by becoming the first mayor in a generation to give the Police Bureau to someone else, just as he said nothing as the Chasse investigation dragged and dragged. You can’t credibly criticize if you chose not to lead.
At least he has the sense to settle the Chasse lawsuit before the scheduled June trial. But that’s not enough. Next, City Council members and city lawyers should follow through on their pledge to release all the details — every interview, every report — that would have come out in court. Show anybody who wonders exactly how this happened so maybe we’ll understand why.
And one more thing. Last month, after police shot a mentally ill man brandishing an X-acto knife at Hoyt Arboretum, a group of so-called “black bloc” protesters gathered at the spot Chasse and the police collided. They seemed like kids playing at anarchy, taking advantage of tragedy to dress up and curse the police, but they did have one clever idea: Somebody in the crowd painted the street sign for Northwest 13th Avenue. They redubbed it, “James Avenue.”
Renaming even a sliver of a street for Chasse might be a bit much. But a small marker to commemorate where this long, sad saga began seems appropriate. The court case is finally, thankfully over. The finger pointing can stop. Yet we need to remember James Chasse. We should keep caring about his death. Otherwise, how will we learn anything?